Human Rights as Practice: Dalit Women's Collective Action to Secure Livelihood Entitlements in rural South India

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


In this dissertation, I investigate how Dalit women in rural South India secure livelihood entitlements by analysing processes of social exclusion as well as collective action by these women through their perspectives. This problematic requires focus on how caste, class and gender mutually construct each other and shape social relations of power within specific contexts. These intersecting axes of difference are expressed in the social norms and practices embedded in state, societal and family institutions which influence the operation of interacting entitlement systems – the regularised arrangements for establishing claims to resources such as law, state provisioning and informal/social institutions – and, therefore, the legitimacy accorded to resource claims. Central to understanding the process of Dalit women’s livelihood entitlement struggles and the outcomes, therefore, are the power dynamics between these women and different state and non-state actors, which continuously condition and, in turn, are conditioned by Dalit women’s collective action. The first half of this book explores the relationships between rights, entitlements, social exclusion, agency and power through four broad complementary, competing discourses – state, dominant socio-cultural, development and legal rights discourses – which generate a number of divergent practices shaping Dalit women’s perceptions on entitlements and freedoms, as well as conditioning their agency. In the second half, I then analyse the complexities of collection action processes through three ethnographic case studies set in different contexts – general inter-caste, semi-feudal, and neo-liberal economy – in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The case studies highlight two types of entitlement struggles which are socially negotiated and politically constructed by these women with the support of internal/external development brokers: one to secure new entitlements (housing or agricultural land) and the other to seek protection where an event or actor (a shrimp farm) worsens a situation of existing inadequate entitlements. These case studies offer insights into the (re)conceptualisation of human rights as practice and strategies to secure rights-based freedoms and entitlements that can transform historically specific relations of subordination. It is hoped that the findings of this study would contribute to bridging the divide between human rights law and its practice as embodied in collective struggle.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • de Gaay Fortman, Bas, Primary supervisor
  • Goldschmidt, Jenny, Supervisor
  • Nencel, L., Co-supervisor, External person
Award date20 Jun 2012
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2012


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